“In addition to our being women, Eslanda is a Negro and I am a white. We suffer from these distinctions, she in her way and I in mine. Had I the chance to be born again in the flesh, I would at heart choose not to be born white, because any informed, intelligent, and feeling white person cannot be wholly comfortable as an American. The absurdity of his position prevents sound sleep. The weight of silly prejudice falls upon the white, not upon the Negro. No weight is so heavy as that of guilt. The Negro is in the comfortable position of being sinned against. . . . Eslanda can afford to criticize and rebel. When I do so, it means a profound self-criticism and a rending of the spirit.”
—Pearl Buck, American Argument (116-117)
1. Angels as Pinpricks
Here is a book that would benefit enormously from a new audience, bringing fresh attention to its authors. And a new audience would benefit from it. (To be clear, Buck proposed the project to Robeson and wrote the book, built around a series of interviews she conducted with Robeson.) It is timely in many ways, despite having been published over seventy years ago at the beginning of the Cold War. The premise is simple: Pearl S. Buck and Eslanda Goode in an extended conversation. One, the child of missionaries who spent nearly the first forty years of her life in China, a successful and prolific White American writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, in good part for her extraordinary 1931 historical novel about China, The Good Earth (part of a trilogy), which was also a successful motion picture in 1937; the other, a playwright, actress, anthropologist, trained chemist, member of an elite Black family, part of the scene of the famed Harlem Renaissance, political activist, and spouse of and business manager for the outspoken legendary actor/singer/athlete Paul Robeson.
This sort of a book was not new to Buck. In 1945, she published Talk About Russia, a conversation with Masha Scott, a Russian woman of peasant stock, loyal to the Revolution, who met her American husband, John Scott as they both worked in Magnitogorsk, which became the largest steel-producing city in all of Russia in a matter of ten years as part of Stalin’s forced industrialization program. Scott wrote a highly graphic book about steelmaking in Magnitogorsk entitled Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel, describing the brutal, corrupt, often incompetent methods used to create the factories. Masha was an independent, intelligent, feminist woman, the type of woman who interested Buck. The book is largely sympathetic to the Revolution, although Buck had her reservations about it, and the book presents Masha in a positive, nay, glowing light. What Masha emphasized about the Revolution was that it improved the lives of Russian women immensely and this struck a chord with Buck. American Argument is, in a way, a similar project of projecting a powerful woman’s voice that had hitherto been suppressed or under-magnified to an influential, educated audience.¹ But the tensions are greater in American Argument, perhaps because both women are American and more deeply implicated in the nuances of their conversation about their native land and in the political meaning of their differences as American citizens.
Although Eslanda Robeson rightly points out in American Argument that Buck is a privileged White woman (Buck, sensibly, did not disagree with the obvious), Robeson, for a Black woman, was highly privileged herself. There were not many White women in such a position of influence as Buck but there were even fewer Black women as recognized and accomplished as Robeson. Both women were in their fifties when they embarked on the project in 1948 (Buck three years older); both were mothers. Robeson had a son; Buck a developmentally impaired daughter but she also adopted seven children and operated an adoption agency for Asian and mixed-race children. Both had met and interacted with many accomplished and famous people. They were used to a certain level of attention and regard. They were women who had lived lives most women only get to dream about.
. . . the tensions are greater in American Argument, perhaps because both women are American and more deeply implicated in the nuances of their conversation about their native land and in the political meaning of their differences as American citizens.
What makes this book interesting is that here are two highly gifted, creative, ultra-modern women, strongly feminist, well educated, well-traveled, and well-off, “left of center,” as The New York Times reviewer called them,² who agree on many things. But the few areas where they disagree are important, vital to the entire tenor of the dialogue. Despite all their similarities, the racial difference turns out to be supremely important; it is the shoals that nearly crash the conversation but enliven the book.
“‘We are looking at the problem [of race] from different backgrounds,’” Eslanda says, “‘you from the background of privilege, and I from the background of oppression.’” (187) Eslanda elaborates on her oppression, despite her privilege as a famous, relatively wealthy Black woman, when the conversation shifts to individual freedom, “‘Can I get a flat in the building in which you live when you are in New York? Can I go South with you on a lecture tour? If you want to go and live in Mississippi, or any part of the Deep South, you can. What about me? If I did, I wouldn’t be able to vote, I’d have to be careful not to be ‘sassy’, I’d have to ‘walk humble’ as Negroes say, in order to preserve my right to ‘life, liberty’, not to mention my ‘pursuit of happiness.’” (152-153)
Despite all their similarities, the racial difference turns out to be supremely important; it is the shoals that nearly crash the conversation but enliven the book.
After some moments of Robeson being especially critical of the United States, Buck poses, “‘Can’t you see any advantage in being an American?’” “‘When Americans treat me and my people like Americans,’” Robeson says, “‘then I’ll like it, and find advantage—and pride—in being American—not before.’” (196, emphasis Buck) Later, Buck writes, “If Eslanda feels as she does, with all the advantages she has had here in this the richest, most powerful, and most comfortable of countries, then what must those others feel?” (203-204) What, indeed, do the others feel, a thought that makes Buck deeply uneasy. For if Robeson ultimately rejects Buck, her premises, her view, a woman with whom she shares so much, what would the others think of her? It has been said on more than one occasion in recent years, and most famously by Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, that there needs to be a national conversation about race. Well, here is one valuable historical example of an exchange between the best the country has to offer. That is why this book needs to be rediscovered.
“I am glad I am an American. I might enjoy life more as a Negro, but one is born with one’s skin fixed. I try to forget it as much as I can.”
—Pearl Buck, American Argument, (119)
2. The Devil on Horseback
Buck was no uninvolved or naïve White liberal: she was a regular contributor to the NAACP’s house organ, Crisis, and was on the boards of the Urban League and Howard University. The only White American woman of the 1930s and 1940s who was held in higher esteem by Black American leadership was Eleanor Roosevelt.³ Buck had been around people of color all of her life. She could read and speak Chinese fluently, so she was no mere tourist for the years she lived in China. Her literary work about China would never have won her the Nobel Prize if she had been superficial. In some ways, she was an outsider; she was not sympathetic to the Whites in China but was alienated from the Chinese, despite her empathy for them, because she was White. (The one thing her comments about China in American Argument makes clear is that the Chinese of her time did not like Whites, emphatically so.) Buck had to have a certain genuine interest in Blacks and their view in order to want to do such a book at the time this book was done.
Robeson, on the other hand, is no racial poseur, no demagogue, no “self-righteous” activist; she is a deeply thoughtful woman, with broad knowledge of the sciences and the arts, possessing an unsentimental attitude about sex and family, whose honesty is striking for its incisiveness, its trenchancy. In most instances, she outthinks Buck. But Robeson is an outsider too. She is an outsider to her native land, accepting it in much the same way a person accepts being born into the wrong family (it is the only family I have), and to a degree an outsider to Blacks, as she must identify with the group because racism offers no other options, which is why she is particularly emphatic with Buck over the issue of individual freedom. My fate is inextricably tied to the fate of the group. I have no individual freedom to separate my fate from the group’s. But Buck makes the same realization when she thinks that in any race war she would have to be on the side of Whites, for her fate, like Robeson, is tied to the group no matter how she feels about the group. Race is a trap.
In most instances, she [Robeson] outthinks Buck. But Robeson is an outsider too.
The discussion about Communist Russia is the sharpest moment of disagreement. Robeson, in her defense of the Revolution, rationalized the Bolshevik’s “‘liquidation,’” or the elimination of the opposition to the new order. She likened the opposition to “‘mad dogs.’” “‘It’s discouraging, but sometimes a few people behave like mad dogs,’” Robeson said, “‘the people who lynch Negroes in the South, the people who exploited Africans to the death, the people who foment wars, the people who cause millions of other people to starve to death in famines, or to live out their lives as serfs. These are mad dogs, and must be treated as such.’” Buck was so dismayed by this assertion that she made no response to it. (130) Even Robeson’s biographer called her words “chilling.”⁴
It is not surprising that Robeson would defend the Soviet Union. She and her husband had lived there for a time, liked the experiment that country was trying to accomplish, and particularly appreciated the seeming absence of racism there. Moreover, many Black intellectuals and activists were supportive of communism because, first, it gave them a compelling theory to explain their position in the world, a wonderful tool of analysis; and, second, because White leftists were virtually alone among Whites who were willing to risk their lives being on the frontlines of activism with Blacks back in the first half of the twentieth century. In short, Buck could afford to hate communism, which she did; Robeson could not, for the same reason she could not unconditionally identify as an American, and the division was racial.
American Argument provides historical depth in our consideration of how Blacks and Whites came together to enact the ritual of conversing across racial lines in the hope of better understanding each other. But it is remarkable how well it still speaks to us today, as aspects of that conversation have not changed.